Sinn Fein denies IRA involvement in £26m bank heist century

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The Independent Online

The Northern Ireland peace process received a severe setback yesterday when police formally blamed the IRA for last month's multimillion-pound bank robbery in central Belfast.

The Northern Ireland peace process received a severe setback yesterday when police formally blamed the IRA for last month's multimillion-pound bank robbery in central Belfast.

The police pronouncement, which was accepted by the British and Irish governments, puts paid for an indefinite period to any prospect of a new powersharing government deal in Belfast.

Such a deal would only be possible on the basis of a historic new agreement between the IRA's political representatives, Sinn Fein, and the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, immediately dismissed the police report as politically biased. "I asked the IRA about this and was assured that they were not involved."

Sinn Fein and IRA denials of any republican involvement in the robbery at the Northern Bank in Belfast city centre are not believed by the governments or by any major strand of opinion in Ireland.

The DUP reacted to the police announcement by saying: "The IRA are responsible for the crime of the century. On that basis, they can't really be involved in politics here."

Chief Constable Hugh Orde, after issuing the police verdict,defended his force's performance, saying officers were doing "a good, solid, professional job" and had given him "world-class briefings". Mr Orde added: "This was a violent and brutal crime, committed by violent and dangerous criminals. It was not some Robin Hood effort."

The Chief Constable said the takings of the robbery, which had been put at £22m, had now been established to be more than £26m, but added that the Northern Bank was to withdraw its notes from circulation, replacing them with a new design. This meant, he said, that most of the haul would be unusable, and the robbery thus amounted to "the largest theft of waste paper" known.

It was clear that London and Dublin remain committed to pressing on with the peace process, but fundamental questions have been raised about republican credibility and commitment to democracy. In last year's talks the IRA had indicated it was prepared to put all its weapons beyond use, the negotiations failing on the apparently narrow point of a republican refusal to allow this to be photographed.

It is now obvious that, while Sinn Fein was in negotiations, the IRA was laying plans for the robbery, which involved taking families hostage and intimidating Northern Bank employees into assisting the thieves. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said the robbery "has obviously been planned at a stage when I was in negotiations with those that would know the leadership of the Provisional movement".

The absence of mutual trust within the peace process has already posed major difficulties, and the robbery will compound these.

The general belief is that the DUP contains two tendencies, with Mr Paisley and his son among those wary of making an arrangement with Sinn Fein. The deputy leader, Peter Robinson, is said to be more enthusiastic about making a deal, but he and his supporters will now have a much more difficult task in persuading the party to strike a bargain.

No real explanation has emerged of why the IRA staged an operation that would undermine the activities of its political wing. Sinn Fein's hopes of forming a new government in Belfast have been postponed indefinitely, while its ambitions to enter a coalition government in the Republic have been severely battered.

One theory is that republicans concluded that the DUP was unlikely to form a meaningful coalition with them, especially since Mr Paisley recently spoke of the need for the IRA to be humiliated. There have been signs in republican districts that the idea of complete republican disarmament is not popular, especially if it appeared to be happening because of Paisleyite demands.

Although two families were threatened and traumatised during the robbery, many in republican areas clearly regard it with admiration, seeing it as an audacious operation that demonstrated the IRA still has teeth and will not be humiliated.

ACCUSATION AND COUNTER-CLAIM

'In my opinion the Provisional IRA were responsible for this crime and all main lines of inquiry currently undertaken are in that direction.'
Hugh Orde, Chief Constable, Northern Ireland

'Hugh Orde's comments are nothing more than politically biased allegations. He has not produced one scrap of evidence.'
Martin Mcguinness, Chief Negotiator, Sinn Fein

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